THE ink had barely dried on Glenna and Bob Harris's college diplomas when they set off to teach English in Tokyo five years ago.
''We were just married and didn't have a couch or a car to make payments on, so we decided to just go and try it,'' says Mr. Harris, who lives in Portland, Ore.
Teaching English overseas remains a popular option for thousands of young Americans who want to live in another culture or take a break before starting a career or graduate school. But getting a job is often no longer simply a matter of showing up and proving conversational ability.
Finding positions in traditionally popular places ''has simply become much more difficult to do,'' says William Nolting, director of international opportunities at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Many once-prime spots - such as Japan and parts of Eastern Europe - have weaker economies or are saturated with Americans. The European Union has also made British and Irish nationals, rather than Americans, more desirable to member countries. In addition, many foreign schools have become more selective, often opting for those with experience actually teaching English.
In the case of the Harrises, they found jobs within a few days, despite their inexperience. But now, ''schools around the world are more aware of qualifications and more suspicious of 'backpacker' English teachers,'' says Susan Griffith, author of ''Teaching English Abroad.''
As a result, career advisers say, those interested in teaching English have to conduct well-planned, thorough searches, be willing to take some risks, and consider less familiar countries. ''There are still positions out there,'' says William Klingelhofer, director of the international experience program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. He notes that the demand for English teachers remains fairly high.
''I certainly encourage our students to try every means,'' Mr. Klingelhofer adds. ''So a student interested in Japan should be applying to JET [the Japan Exchange and Teaching program], as well as applying directly to the private language schools there.''
Some language schools recruit in the United States, but finding a job from the US can be tough since so many people are overseas already, Ms. Griffith says. ''It is usually a lot easier to find a job, to persuade somebody to hire you, if you're there - which requires a leap of faith,'' she says.
FOR those not wanting to make that leap, which can be expensive if a job is not forthcoming, Mr. Nolting suggests specialty programs, such as JET, sponsored by the Japanese government, or the Peace Corps. These two groups take care of visas and training, offer on-site support, and don't require a placement fee.
''What I liked about JET was that it really helped with culture shock,'' says Tress Ahles, who taught in Japan from 1991 to 1994. ''It just gave me a great network right from the start.''
Other programs often charge large sums to place volunteers. Klingelhofer notes that for some countries, such as many in Africa, paying placement fees is worthwhile because jobs are difficult to find. But he cautions applicants to check out a program and its services before they pay and make sure it can deliver what they want.
Darcy Jameson, who returned from teaching in Costa Rica in 1994, says that a lot of the programs she looked into were ''really unstructured and were a little bit of a scam.''
She eventually went with WorldTeach, a Cambridge, Mass., organization that places volunteers for a fee. Unlike the Peace Corps, it had only a one-year commitment and allowed her to select her destination.
While such programs remain popular, some Americans are opting to enhance their credentials by taking month-long certificate courses in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL).
''By and large, there are still more people who go teach English without that [certificate] training, at least Americans,'' says Jim Laden, director of career services at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. ''But it seems to be a more popular option, and certainly a way to justify yourself as a teacher in other countries.''
It can also help smooth the adjustment once overseas. ''A lot of people think that if you speak English, you can teach it, which really isn't true,'' says Dorothea Heberle, who writes on techniques for teaching English abroad.
A handful of schools in the US have begun offering the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA)/Cambridge certificate, developed in Britain. Other TEFL courses developed in the US are also available. The price: $2,000 or more.
Individuals considering such a course should examine the qualifications of the teachers, expect at least 100 hours of class time, and make sure that more time will be spent on practice rather than theory, says Walker Kerwin of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Inc., in Alexandria, Va.
Linda Galas, director of Coast Language Academy in Portland, Ore., which now offers the RSA, notes that the cost of the certificate program is worth it only for those who plan to teach for at least two years and don't commit themselves to staying in one country that pays low wages.